Celtic ethnicity Celtic languages and Celtic art

The first questions that should be addressed in a book that incorporates the phrase 'Celtic art' in its title are whether the term 'Celtic' is justified, and in what sense is it being applied? Chapman (1992) cast doubt on the belief that Celts in Iron Age Europe existed as an ethnic group at all. Collis (2003) was more qualified in his critique, noting that Caesar's identification of the inhabitants of his third part of Gaul, who were known as 'Celtae in their own language, but "Galli" in ours' (de Bello Gallico, 1, 1), might endorse the concept of a Celtic ethnic identity. He also cited among others the case of the Romanized poet Martial, who in the first century ad claimed to be half-Celtic and half-Iberian. However inadequate or confusing the sources may be, the ancient writers evidently thought of Celts as an ethnic identification. The real problem therefore is the correlation of ancient ethnic Celts with Celtic languages, on the one hand, and with any coherent set of archaeological material, on the other.

The earliest usage of the term 'Keltoi' by ancient writers is by Hecateaus and Herodotus in the late sixth and fifth centuries bc, in reference to one of the recognized groups of barbarian neighbours of the Greeks. Herodotus' grasp of European geography and his understanding of ethnography may have been tenuous, but it is important that the recognition of Celts as an ethnic identity, however ill-defined or imprecisely located in Central and Western Europe, pre-dates the appearance of the La Tene culture in the mid-fifth century bc. Since it is likely that the emergence of the Celts considerably pre-dated their first impact upon Greek historians or geographers, there is a case for believing that Celts in Continental Europe existed from at least the later Bronze Age.

Later classical sources are by no means consistent in their references to Celts for various reasons. The problem is compounded by the various usages in Greek and Roman sources of the terms Keltoi, Galatai, Celti and Galli. The fact that tribal groups are identified by Caesar among the Celtae or Galli, the Belgae and Aquitani, for example, suggests that there may have been a hierarchy of levels within which the native communities identified themselves, and that 'Celt' was therefore almost certainly a supra-tribal and perhaps supra-regional descriptor. In this case it seems possible that Caesar's fundamental division of Gaul into three parts mistakenly equates entities at different levels. 'Belgium' plainly included a dozen or more tribal groupings, as did 'Aquitania', so these would appear to be 'middle-order' entities. Their contrasting by implication with 'Celtic' Gaul might suggest that neither Aquitania nor Belgium were Celtic, but if Caesar was unaware of a 'middle-order' designation for the rest of Gaul, he might have resorted to the 'supra-regional' name as shorthand for 'the rest'.

The absence of references to Celts in the very partial documentary record, either for Britain or for other regions of Continental Europe, particularly east of the Rhine, is no guarantee that the inhabitants of those regions were not part of the wider Celtic community. Collis' (2003) preference for regarding France west of the Rhine as the probable Celtic heartland in part derives from the fact that, through Caesar, this is where Celts are most clearly located, and in part from the fact that the documentary sources point most clearly to these regions as the homeland of Celtic migrants of the early fourth century into Italy. Yet this is not to say that regions east of the Rhine were not also Celtic from an early date, even though the surviving documentary sources are more equivocal. Caesar's distinction between Gauls and Germans along the Rhine (as opposed to Teutonic Germans of Northern Europe), quite evidently was a red herring introduced by him for political reasons. Strabo (Geography, IV, 4, 2; VII, 1, 2) was in no doubt that Gauls and Germans were related by kinship, and explained that the Romans called the Germans 'Germani' (L. germanus = true, genuine, as a natural brother) to emphasize that they were blood brothers of the Gauls. Accepting the historical migrations of Gauls into South-Eastern Europe as originating west of the Rhine, then plainly the situation in north-alpine Central Europe may have been affected by this phase of expansion, but there must be a strong possibility that people of Celtic ethnicity and speech occupied Europe east of the Rhine from a much earlier date. For Strabo, at any rate, Celtica at the supra-level extended north of the Alps to the mouth of the Rhine and to the Pyrenees and the Ocean in the west.

The equation of ethnic Celts of antiquity with Celtic languages has aroused equal controversy. It is true that the group of Indo-European languages now known as 'Celtic' have only been so designated since George Buchanan's pioneer work of the sixteenth century, being more widely adopted from the early eighteenth century. It is equally self-evident that much of Victorian and modern 'Celtomania' has no sound scholarly foundations in ancient history or archaeology. Yet however the language group is designated, it is clear from linguistic, epigraphic, numismatic and place-name evidence that by the early Roman Empire it covered a wide region of Central and Western Europe, including the Hispanic peninsula, northern Italy, Britain and Ireland. In the absence of evidence for wholesale population incursions of the late pre-Roman period to account for such linguistic super-strata, it seems reasonable to regard this as the language group of the various communities whose archaeological material culture has been systematically identified by archaeologists as early Iron Age or even later Bronze Age (Harding and Gillies, 2005). Across the territory covered by the proxymap of Celtic languages, there is plainly no uniformity of material culture, though there may be common elements. It is certainly not co-terminous with the La Tene distribution, nor with that of Hallstatt or the Urnfield series before that, though these Central European cultures certainly fall within the putative Celtic zone, and the Urn-field distribution is perhaps closest of any to a pan-European phenomenon. But in Atlantic Europe in particular there are sizeable regions, such as northern and western Britain, southern Ireland, western France and the Hispanic peninsula, where Urnfield, Hallstatt and La Tene material culture made minimal impact. While we might share Collis' view (2003, 195) therefore that 'there is likely to have been some feeling of common identity across Europe, at the level of a shared language', there can be little doubt that regional patterns of material culture must indicate some quite striking differences, notably between Central Europe, on the one hand, and the Atlantic seaboard, on the other.

How far Celtic languages can be projected backwards in time is much more contentious. Renfrew (1987) saw the emergence of Celtic languages in Europe as an indigenous development from a much earlier introduction of Indo-European with the first farmers, but this view scarcely takes account of the complexity of the evidence, and has not gained widespread support among linguists. In any event, we should not expect patterns, linguistic, archaeological or ethnic, to have remained immutable over centuries. Nor should we necessarily therefore expect close correlations between archaeological and linguistic distributions, or linguistic and ethnic distributions, any more than we would now expect the level of correlation between archaeological cultures and ethnic groups that was firmly envisaged by Gustaf Kossina or Gordon Childe in the earlier twentieth century.

If we are prepared to accept 'Celtic' as a language group, variants of which were widely spoken by Iron Age communities in Central and Western Europe, and even that the concept of Celtic ethnicity, however ill-defined in the classical sources, implies a measure of commonality of identity between neighbouring groups, what should the term 'Celtic' mean in the context of Celtic art? Most studies of Celtic art since Jacobsthal have been principally focused on La Tene art, a term that conventionally includes insular British and Irish metal-work, even though diagnostic or typical types of Continental La Tene are really relatively poorly represented here. Yet in contrast to the general pattern of Iron Age material culture, in which Britain is decidedly peripheral to Central Europe in the number and range of definitive types, in the field of ornamented metal-work from the third century bc onwards at least the British inventory is as spectacular as anywhere in Celtic Europe. In Ireland not only are key La Tene types such as safety-pin brooches represented by barely three dozen known examples, compared to a thousand or more in the Duchcov hoard from the Czech Republic alone, but even those few are of distinctive insular types, quite without parallel in Continental Europe. Other so-called La Tene types, such as Y-pendants and spear-butts, are likewise not at all characteristic of Continental La Tene, to the extent that one might question how La Tene the Irish assemblage actually is. Yet the La Tene in Ireland would normally be regarded as an important sub-group within the overall family of Celtic art.

Apart from distinctly regional sub-groups like the Irish La Tene, there are other areas of Atlantic Europe that might well qualify as 'Celtic' on the basis of linguistic or allied evidence, but where the impact of La Tene material culture is minimal or non-existent. Ireland south of a line from Dublin to the Galway Bay presents a particular problem that will be discussed in due course. But south-western France and the Hispanic peninsula beyond the Iberian zone are regions where La Tene or La Tene-related types are relatively few, and where ornament of material artefacts is not nearly as prolific or distinctive as in the La Tene tradition. In Spain, apart from the area of documented Celtiberians, there are regions to the south-west and north-west where place-names and allied evidence suggest the presence of Celtic speakers. These regions too, therefore, will need to be considered if we are to justify the title of 'Celtic' art beyond simple convenience and convention. If, then, there are regional populations that were Celtic-speaking but not characterized archaeologically by a La Tene culture, we should question reciprocally whether all bearers of La Tene culture were necessarily Celtic-speaking. Self-evidently the exclusive equation of Celtic identity with La Tene material culture is mistaken, but could the exclusive equation of La Tene with Celtic also be erroneous?

Finally, in this section, we should consider the chronological limits of Celtic art. Most Continental studies conclude with the Roman Empire, which effectively brought an end to the La Tene art style. In Britain, on the fringes and beyond the Roman frontiers, and in Ireland, by contrast, the 'long Iron Age' extends well into the first millennium ad. Though any elements of continuity from earlier Celtic art into the 'Pictish' period in Northern Britain, or into Early Christian art in Ireland, need to be carefully scrutinized, nevertheless these communities were Celtic-speaking, and may legitimately be included in the broader discussion of Celtic art here proposed. Indeed, consideration of the composition, context and potential meaning of these later styles may prompt questions relevant to the study of earlier Celtic art.

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